Visiting the “Jeweled Isle” Exhibition of Sri Lankan Art at LACMA

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to visit “The Jeweled Isle,” a major exhibition of Sri Lankan art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Exhibitions of Sri Lankan art in the U.S. are few and far between; to my knowledge, this is only the third exhibition devoted exclusively to the art of Sri Lanka. The first, in 1992-93 at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, focused exclusively on Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, while the second, the 2003 “Guardian of the Flame” exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, was limited to Buddhist artifacts. The LACMA exhibition, which opened last December and closed in early July (2019), presents a much broader focus, highlighting the interactions of the diverse communities, ethnicities, and religious identities that have taken root on the island over the past three millennia. This globalized perspective is effectively evoked by the first image that appears at the entrance to the exhibit: the island’s silhouette superimposed at the center of a web-like pattern that simultaneously evokes a network of global connections, and the facets of a jewel, one of the island’s natural resources that has captured the attention of traders and colonizers.

Sign at exhibit entrance.
(All photographs are mine, unless otherwise indicated; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 2019)
Display of 21 precious gems from Sri Lanka.

The power of “jewels” is one of the key organizing themes that run throughout the exhibit, linking the human attraction to precious gemstones with two foundational forms of Buddhist practice: taking refuge in the “triple gem” of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and activities centered on the Buddha’s bodily relics, which have long been symbolically and physically linked with precious stones. Buddha relics are typically enclosed in two different kinds of containers, both of which appear throughout the exhibit: in the massive relic monuments (stupas) that spatially and ritually define important Sri Lankan Buddhist devotional sites (displayed here on palm-leaf manuscript covers and as captured by 19th-century colonial photographers), and in stupa-shaped reliquaries, which are either permanently enshrined in stupas or serve as moveable relic containers for devotional purposes. Several examples of reliquaries, labeled “votive stupas,” appear throughout the exhibit, dating from the 2nd-3rd century to the 19th century.

Rock crystal reliquary, 2nd-3rd cent.
Ivory reliquary, 17th-18th cent. Ebony reliquary, 19th cent.
Two illustrated palm-leaf manuscript covers (inside surface); the top pair (18th-19th cent.) are wood overlaid with inscribed silver; the bottom pair (19th cent.) are painted wood. Both include depictions of the 16 great pilgrimage sites associated with the tradition of Gotama Buddha’s three visits to the island; the upper set also depicts the bodhisattva’s encounter with 24 previous Buddhas prior to his final rebirth as Siddhartha, and the first seven weeks after his enlightenment. Together they illustrate the extended life of the Buddha, beginning with his first aspiration to Buddhahood countless ages ago, his three visits to the island during his lifetime, and his post-death connection to sixteen places across the island where his physical relics continue to mediate his presence in the world.
Detail, showing (above) the bodhisattva’s encounter with previous Buddhas and (below) the first seven weeks following his enlightenment at Bodhgaya.
Detail from gallery card.

These containers for precious materials evoke another key theme threading throughout the exhibition: the island itself as a physical container, bounded by water, and defined by the comings and goings of different groups of people throughout its long history. As the gallery card provided for the gemstone exhibit notes, in the early centuries of the Common Era the island was known as “Ratnadvipa” (Island of Gems), and legends developed that the gems found there originated from the tears of the Buddha, or of Adam and Eve. Medieval Christian and Islamic texts preserve a tradition that it was the site of Paradise. The island, with its strategic location for global trade and valuable natural resources and commodities (e.g., spices, gems, rubber, coffee, tea), has exerted a powerful centripetal force, attracting diverse groups of outsiders defined by a multiplicity of identity markers (including racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences). Sinhalas, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, trace their origins to North India, and the traditional account of their migration to the island is closely linked to the life of the Buddha: Vijaya, their legendary progenitor, is said to have set foot on the island on the day of Gotama Buddha’s parinibbāna (final passing away). Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu, constitute the second largest ethnic group, and they trace their origins to groups of settlers from South India. Other ethnic groups include the Väddas, an indigenous group whose ancestors are regarded as predating the arrival of the Sinhalas; Moors, descended from Arab-speaking traders, who are predominantly Muslim; and Malays, also predominantly Muslim, whose ancestors came from the Malay Archipelago. Sri Lanka was also populated by three successive groups of European colonizers, beginning with the Portuguese in the early 16th century, followed be the Dutch in the 17th century, and finally the British who gained complete control of the island, then called Ceylon, in 1815 and ruled it as a British crown colony until its independence in 1948. The Burghers, a Eurasian community defined by links to a paternal ancestor of European descent, constitute an additional group.

All of these communities, with the exception of the Malays, are represented through the objects on display, most of which belong to the LACMA collection, supplemented by objects borrowed from a number of other museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Without attempting to provide a detailed account of the impact of European colonial rule, or of the long history of inter-ethnic conflicts on island, the objects on display effectively evoke the complex interactions of diverse groups, pointing to moments of shared interest and appreciation, as well as contestation and social othering. This is accomplished through the curators’ choice of objects for display, the exhibition’s integrated spatial layout and unified aesthetic plan (designed by a prominent Los Angeles architecture firm), and the strategically placed signage, which provides essential historical and cultural information. I was particularly impressed by the use of 19th-century photographs strategically placed throughout the exhibit to highlight the impact of British colonial points of view, including their fascination with Buddhist archaeological sites, aspects of the natural environment, and “native” Sri Lankans represented by shots of humble villagers, as well as members of the Kandyan aristocracy, a group that lost power with the British conquest of Kandy in 1815. These photographic displays culminate near the end of the exhibition with a series of 20 photographs by Reg van Cuylenburg (1926-1988), a Sri Lankan photographer of Kandyan Sinhalese, English, and Dutch descent who toured the island from 1949-58, documenting people and places in the newly independent nation. It is revealing, I think, to compare the very formal and static character of the 19th-century photos with the vibrant and dynamic force of van Cuylenburg’s “Village Girls Bathing” (see below). A final sign at the end of the exhibit, titled “Buddhist Legacies and Island Memories,” makes a poignant contrast between the optimism that informed van Cuylenburg’s work, and the more recent history of ethnic conflict, concluding: “Among the greatest tragedies in Sri Lanka’s recent history is the civil war (1983-2009) that pitted Sinhalese Buddhists against Tamil Hindus, two groups that had coexisted and comingled for much of Sri Lanka’s history. It is unlikely that such a prolonged conflict could have been foreseen when Sri Lanka won its independence from Britain in 1948. Young Sri Lankans of that time, including the photographer Reg van Cuylenburg, reveled in optimism for the future of their island nation, which had been strewn for two millennia with the jewels of diverse communities, cultures, ethnicities, and religions.”

19th-cent. colonial photographs: “Villager Selling Plaintains, c. 1890. Photo from exhibition catalogue: Robert Brown, et al., The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka (Los Angeles: LACMA, 2018).
“Kandyan Chief,” Scowen & Co., c. 1880-90.
Photographs displayed on wall near entrance to the exhibition, with introductory label.
Reg van Cuylenburg, “Village Girls Bathing,” c. 1950-58.

Much could be said about the ways that the exhibit portrays the deep integration of “Buddhist” and “Hindu” religious practices in the lives of Sri Lankans, providing a visual counter-narrative to one of the enduring legacies of British rule in South Asia—a taxonomy of knowledge that represented “world religions” such as Buddhism and Hinduism as tightly organized and exclusive systems of belief that closely aligned with other exclusivist racial/ethnic and linguistic categories (e.g., Buddhist/Sinhala and Hindu/Tamil). This integrative approach is apparent in the prominent display of a series of 17th-18th-century painted wood panels from the LACMA collection, which most likely served as window or door panels in a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple (their original provenance is unknown; they came to the museum as a donation from the actor James Coburn). These depict major gods associated with Indian Brahmanical religion and planetary deities, as well as devotees and powerful local spirits. As the gallery card notes: “Sri Lankan Buddhist practices often involve honoring various deities who were originally assimilated from popular, folk, and Indian traditions in order to undergird Buddhism’s relevance to the everyday lives and goals of worshippers … [who] seek protection and benefits in their present lives, and the gods found throughout Buddhist temple complexes in Sri Lanka aid their efforts.” The two panels depicted below show the popular elephant-headed god Ganesha, and probably Shakra (Indra), who figures prominently in Theravada accounts of the Buddha’s life; a demonic spirit (commonly depicted as fierce guardians in Buddhist temples) and a female devotee are depicted in the lower registers of each panel.

Panel depicting Ganesha and a demonic spirit.
Probably Shakra, king of the gods; in the background can be seen a large carved wooden mask (20th-century) of Maha Kola Sanni Yaksha, chief of the demonic spirits (yakshas), who are engaged in yaktovil healing rituals. UVM’s Fleming Museum has several Sri Lankan yaktovil masks, including a very rare 19th-century mask of Maha Kola Sanni Yaksha, now prominently displayed in the Fleming’s new gallery of Asian art; see my discussion of the mask here.

The final object in the exhibition might at first strike the viewer as incongruous, as it was created by Lewis deSoto, a contemporary artist of Cahuilla Native American ancestry. Titled “Paranirvana (Self Portrait),” it is a 26-foot inflatable image of the reclining Buddha with the artist’s own face. Like the inflatable lawn ornaments that appear during the holidays in the front yards of many American homes, it relies upon an electric fan to keep it inflated. As the nearby label notes, the sculpture’s inflation in the morning and its deflation at the close of the day calls to mind the rising and falling of “spiritual breath” (prana) in yogic practice, as well as the cycle of birth and death (samsara). It’s connection to Sri Lanka? It is inspired by the massive 12th-century reclining Buddha image at Gal Vihara, part of the Polonnaruwa temple complex in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly fitting that the last object in the exhibit simultaneously looks backward toward an ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist monument, and forward toward new globalized forms of Asian religious practice (yoga, as well as Buddhism in its multiple North American hybridized forms). And, once again, the curators have juxtaposed a final example of a British colonial gaze in the form of a 19th-century photograph of the Gal Vihara sculpture.

Joseph Lawton, photograph, “Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara, 1870-71
Lewis deSoto, painted vinyl infused with cloth, “Paranirvana (Self Portrait),” 2015

I feel very fortunate to have been able to undertake this academic pilgrimage to Los Angeles to view this remarkable exhibition, which has given me much to reflect upon. I also want to express my gratitude to Dr. Tushara Bindu Gude, co-curator, who very graciously walked me through the exhibition and gave me a better understanding of its genesis.

The Reading List: Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History

I currently participate in a small reading group with colleagues from the Political Science, Romance Languages and Linguistics, and Religion Departments. Many of the works we have read explore the relationship between politics and religion in the context of modernity, and we recently discussed Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004.  Fasolt is Professor emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, and he has written extensively on political, social, and legal thought in medieval and early modern Europe. The Limits of History is noteworthy for its use of a relatively narrow historical case study—an examination of the work of the seventeeth-century German scholar Hermann Conring (1606-1681)—as the springboard for a broad historiographical critique. Fasolt’s engaging and lively analysis moves deftly from close readings of Conring’s works on political authority to a wide-ranging theoretical examination of the social and political implications of historical research.

This work is of particular interest to me in connection with my own research on Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrimage sites, specifically my exploration of historical narratives employed by advocates for the authenticity of Batathota cave temple (shown above in my 2016 photograph) as the true site of Divaguhava, the Cave of the [Buddha’s] Midday Rest, one of the sixteen great pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka linked to the tradition that Gotama Buddha visited the island three times during his lifetime. For those who know something about the modern history of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourses, it is probably not surprising to observe that these narratives, as identified and employed by advocates for the site, are not simply collections of “facts” about the past; rather, even a cursory analysis suggests that these narratives, whether as transmitted through published texts or mediated through oral accounts presented by lay officials at the site, serve a variety of social ends that might be characterized as “political” or “religious” (both of which are vexed categories that demand careful unpacking, particularly when contrasted with one another). What is less obvious is the political work accomplished by my own historical analysis, and this is precisely where Fasolt’s analysis provides some crucial insights.

The substance of Fasolt’s critique is relatively straightforward. He seeks to raise historians’ awareness of the links between historical analysis and the emergence of several key features of western modernity. According to Fasolt, freedom and progress depend upon the distinction between past and present, which the work of historians creates. Historians, through their commitment to discovering what “really” happened in the past on the basis of historical evidence, make possible the emergence of an individual subjectivity characterized by freedom from the past. The doing of history, he suggests, has become so naturalized that we have lost sight of the social and political conflicts that gave rise to it. He writes: “History enlists the desire for knowledge about the past to meet a deeper need: the need for power and independence, the need to have done with the past and to be rid of things that cannot be forgotten. Whatever knowledge it may pick up along the way is but a means toward that end” (Introduction). Thus historical work is an exercise of power, one that can have dangerous consequences, particularly if those who undertake it regard it as “a natural, neutral, harmless, and universally applicable form of thought” (32). As he puts it: “The past, as a familiar saying goes, is a foreign country. Historians are just as active in invading that foreign country, conquering its inhabitants, subjecting them to their discipline, and annexing their territories to the possessions of the present as any imperialist who ever sought to impose his power on colonies abroad. To call their activity a conquest is no mere figure of speech. It is a perfectly accurate description of history’s political effect” (Introduction).

Does this lead him to conclude that we must stop doing history? Not at all. The problem isn’t that we seek knowledge about the past. Rather, the danger of an unreflective historical consciousness is its intrinsic imperialism, at least when it is universalized and naturalized by the quest for objectivity: “History, in all its variations, continues to draw strength from the conviction that there is nothing wrong with the standards of objectivity, only with their implementation” (35). Drawing on the metaphor of a camera, he describes those who operate within an historical consciousness as acting “like the photographer who never looks at anything except through the lens of his camera. We seem to have lost the ability to recognize that history is merely one way of looking at the world, a good way (because our freedom depends on it), but one that neither shows everything to us nor shows anything without refraction” (32). Evoking the language of religion (which is surprisingly absent from his analysis of Conring’s own works), he observes: “Seen from outside … history rather appears to be the intellectual form that secularized Christianity has given to its preoccupation with the salvation of the soul. It is the same preoccupation that was in earlier times cast in the forms of theology and canon law. History is the ritual examination (especially by experts officially trained and licensed) of certain objects (mostly preserved in archives, libraries, and museums) without which the distinction between past and present could not support the weight placed on it by the established church— that modern church embodied in the nationstate whose symbols are printed on every dollar bill and whose members worship at the altar of nature. History serves to keep the modern world united. It is linked to violence in the same way that Christianity was formerly linked to the Crusades” (230).

These are powerful assertions, and they raise troubling implications for those of us who, like myself, regard historical analysis as foundational to our critical work. How does it reposition, for example, the way that I think about my work on Batathota cave temple? While I am only beginning to attempt to work through the implications of Fasolt’s historiographical critique, at least one possible direction for further reflection comes to mind: the recognition that historical discourses are culturally embedded in complex ways, both in the Euro-American tradition of Buddhist studies within which my own work is situated, and in the postcolonial emergence of Sri Lankan nationalist and religious discourses. What is at stake in asserting that a particular event is “historical,” for example, the visit of Gotama Buddha to a particular Sri Lankan cave? The asking and answering of that question by lay officials at Batathota cave temple, and by me as a North American scholar of Buddhism, point to important areas of convergence and difference that I hope to explore in greater depth as a result of having encountered Fasolt’s rich and illuminating book.

Constantin Fasolt. 2013. The Limits of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Maeve Herrick—Robert D. Benedict Award Recipient

Maeve receiving the Robert B. Benedict Award from Prof. Peter vonDoepp. Global & Regional Studies Interim Director

Maeve receiving the Robert B. Benedict Award from Prof. Peter vonDoepp. Global & Regional Studies Interim Director

Maeve Herrick, a senior Religion major, was presented with the Robert D. Benedict Award for the Best Essay in the Field of International Affairs. Her essay is entitled, “The Sacred City of Anuradhapura: Perpetuating Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism through a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

Some reflections on my research                                    by Maeve Herrick

 Coming up with a topic for my senior paper, which I would be working on over two semesters, was daunting. I was in the class, Buddhism in Sri Lanka, so my topic was going to connect to the title of the course, generally. Because I am a religion and anthropology double major, I also wanted the project to connect in some way to archaeology, which is my concentration in anthropology. Professor Trainor suggested that I look into the “Sacred City of Anuradhapura,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka. As I began to research the city my topic solidified and I became interested in understanding the relationships between Buddhism, Sinhala nationalism, and UNESCO and the ways in which those relationships have been manifested in Anuradhapura. I discovered that the position of the Sacred City of Anuradhapura as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is significant because it exemplifies how UNESCO may be used as a pawn by nationalists who wish to legitimize and create enduring claims to a place. My research on the Sacred City of Anuradhapura explores different narratives concerning the history of the city, the ways that the city was reimagined by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists throughout the twentieth century, and how its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site is problematic.

UNESCO TV video on the Great Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura

A substantial part of my research was involved in examining Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist Brahmacari Harischandra’s claims concerning Anuradhapura, and understanding both how his imagining of the city is inaccurate, and why he constructs the city in the way he does. Harischandra argues that the British presence and archaeological research in Anuradhapura is desecrating the monuments there, that the city is a solely Sinhala Buddhist space, and that the ancient city was physically separated into secular and sacred spaces (Harischandra 1908). It is because of his opposition to British colonialism, his efforts towards the “regeneration of Buddhism and Sinhala culture that had both declined under the harmful influences of colonialism (Seneviratne 1999:28-9),” and his belief that the Sinhala nation has sole rights to the city and to Sri Lanka that Harischandra constructs the history and space of the city in a way that marginalizes other groups in the city (Harischandra 1908, Berkwitz 2004, 35).

Despite the inaccuracies of Harischandra’s understanding of Anuradhapura, in 1948 the city of Anuradhapura was constructed in such a way that Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism became physically manifested in the space (Nissan 1989, 65). Non-Buddhist religious buildings, such as churches, a mosque, and a Hindu temple were removed from the old city of Anuradhapura and many families were relocated from the old city and moved to the nearby New City (Nissan 1989, 65-74). The destruction of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious buildings is symbolic; the people connected to these buildings are not understood to be a part of the nation that is laying claim to the space they occupied, and to the entire island. This construction of Anuradhapura places it as a Sinhala Buddhist place, creating a physical space for the nation of Sinhala Buddhists to claim exclusive heritage.

I was also concerned with the way that UNESCO has been used to legitimize and perpetuate Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist claims to the city. In 1982 the Sacred City of Anuradhapura became a UNESCO World Heritage Site (UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2015). The process of inscription for World Heritage Sites is problematic and has been criticized because sites are nominated by those who possess power (Askew 2010, 22). The Sinhala Buddhist government advocated for Anuradhapura to become a World Heritage Site (Silva 1988, 18). Representations, narratives, and the physical space of the city perpetuate and embody the city as the foundation of Sinhala Buddhist nationhood while marginalizing Tamil and other groups within Anuradhapura (Askew 2010, 22). Inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site legitimizes these narratives, in addition to providing monetary support for continued preservation of the city (Askew 2010, 22, World Heritage Centre 2008, 10).

The severity of the Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist claim to Anuradhapura is evident in a 1985 Tamil attack on the city, where many people were killed, including a number of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis [Buddhist monks and nuns] who were at the Sri Maha Bodhiya, the most important site for Sri Lankan Buddhists (Wickremeratne 2006, 158-159, The Globe and Mail 1985, The Guardian 1985, Nissan 1989, 65). Elizabeth Nissan contextualizes the attack, “In stopping to attack this tree, it could be argued, the gunmen (presumed to have been Tamil ‘Tigers’) attacked a whole construction of the island as continuously and inviolably Sinhala Buddhist” (Nissan 1989, 65). I show that this act of violence was in part a product of decades of nation building, heritage construction, and hegemonic claims to Anuradhapura by Sinhala Buddhist Nationalists (Nissan 1989, 65-67). This construction of knowledge, heritage, and nationhood was aided and legitimized by the inscription of Anuradhapura as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was advocated by those who would benefit most from exclusive claims to Sri Lankan history (Silva 1988, 18).

My research on Anuradhapura exemplifies the ways in which archaeology can be misused by those in power in order to perpetuate nationalist ideologies, to make hegemonic claims to archaeological sites, and to disenfranchise certain groups from their heritage. In the fall I will be pursuing my master’s degree in anthropology with a concentration in archaeology at the University of Denver. I plan to focus on the ways in which archaeologists can better engage with the public in order to change and improve the ways in which knowledge about the past is constructed.


  1. “Tamil attack kills eighty / Massacre of civilians in Sri Lankan town of Anuradhapura.” The Guardian (London). (May 15).
  2. “Toll climbs to 145 in Tamil massacre.” The Globe and Mail (Canada). (May 15).

Askew, Marc. 2010. “The Magic List of Global Status: UNESCO, World Heritage and the Agnedas of States.” In Heritage and Globalisation, edited by Sophia Labadi and Colin Long, 19-44. New York, NY: Routledge.

Berkwitz, Stephen C. 2004. “History and Textuality.” In Buddhist History in the Vernacular: The Power of the Past in Late Medieval Sri Lanka, 20-37. Boston, MA: Brill. Blackboard.

Greenwald, Alice. 1978. “The Relic on the Spear: Historiography and the Saga of Dutthagamani.” In Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka, edited by Bardwell L. Smith, 13-35. Chambersburg, PA: Conococheague Associates, Inc.

Harischandra, Walsinha. 1908. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura. University of California. Accessed October 17, 2014. Google Books.

The Mahavamsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon. 1912. Translated by Wilhelm Geiger, London: Oxford University Press. University of California CDL. Ebscohost.

Nissan, Elizabeth. 1989. “History in the Making: Anuradhapura and the Sinhala Buddhist Nation.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 25 Identity, Consciousness and The Past: The South Asian Scene,  64-77.

Silva, Roland. 1988. “The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka: One Of 32 International Cultural Heritage Projects Launched by UNESCO.” Icomos information 3: 26-35.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2015. “Sacred City of Anuradhapura: Description.” UNESCO World Heritage Center. Accessed May 16, 2015.

Wickremeratne, Swarna. 2006. “Bodhi Puja: All for the Sake of a Tree.” In Buddha in Sri Lanka, 157-166. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


Kathryn Meader—Outstanding Senior in Religion Award Recipient

meader photoA Reflection by Kathryn Meader

Since the beginning of my college career I found myself drawn to the Religion Department. Whether this was because of the personalities of the professors, or the content of their classes, one cannot be entirely sure. Regardless of the reasons, my time with this department has always led to interesting conversations that inevitably stimulated my interest in the study of religion even further. My love of history and its connections with religion truly found an outlet in my study of medieval Christianity, and my research on the twelfth-century abbess, Heloise d’Argenteuil.

This spring, I had the opportunity to participate in the Undergraduate Research Conference held at UVM on April 23rd, and created a poster to introduce my research and its goals. It was lots of fun talking with people about a topic that I am so passionate about, as well as showing that poster presentations aren’t just for the sciences! Being able to create a concise presentation of a very large project is an important skill to acquire, and by presenting my work to others I was better able to understand what my own goals were in finishing the project. Presenting work can often be the most challenging part of a course, but it is always a true test of your own knowledge and grasp of the subject. I enjoyed working closely with an advisor in the Religion Department on a large project, and that was definitely the academic highlight of my senior year. Beyond that, it served as a perfect capstone for all of the skills that I have acquired throughout my four years at UVM.

Going forward after graduation, I plan to stay in the Burlington area for the next year at least, and hopefully find a position with an institution that continues to stimulate my curiosity. I hope to find an outlet to continue exploring the various experiences of religion in daily life, and the history of religious institutions. I will be forever grateful for my time at UVM, and especially for the time I’ve spent with the wonderful professors at 481 Main.

Student Research Conference Poster

Kathryn, who is from Marshfield, Massachusetts, is a double major in Religion and History, and a member of the History honors society, Phi Alpha Theta.

Objects in Focus at the Fleming

Sri_Lanken_mask_10_14The Fleming Museum has an impressive collection of 17 Sri Lankan masks dating from the late nineteenth century, which were created for use in two ritual settings in Sri Lanka: yaktovil healing ceremonies and kolam folk dramas. The masks were brought to Vermont by two collectors, Joseph Winterbotham and Henry LeGrand Cannon. The majestic yaktovil mask pictured here, which measures 82 cm in height, was acquired by Cannon and probably dates to the late 1800s. The carved wooden mask depicts Maha Kola Sanni Yaka, chief of the sanni yakku, a group of 18 malevolent spirits who afflict humans by causing a variety of illnesses. These misfortunes are cured through elaborate night-long healing ceremonies in which ritual specialists embody the various spirits and subdue them through offerings and by dramatically representing their subservience to the power of the Buddha. Masks of this size were displayed during these ceremonies rather than put on, though a smaller mask of Maha Kola Sanniya was likely worn in the course of the ceremony. This particular mask is quite rare, with only a few examples found in museum collections around the world. The 18 spirits who are under Maha Kola Sanniya’s control can be seen depicted on either side of his face.

In 2008 the museum mounted an exhibition of Sri Lankan masks from their permanent collection and I had the opportunity to give a talk on the masks displayed in the exhibit, seen in the context of the healing rituals in which they traditionally play a vital part. In the course of my talk, I highlighted the theme of “framing,” the process through which we identify particular objects as the focus of our attention and define a context within which to view them and interpret their significance. Since then I have regularly brought students in my seminar on Sri Lankan Buddhism to the museum to encounter the masks, including Maha Kola Sanniya, and to reflect on the contrast between how the masks might be used in a Sri Lankan healing ritual and how they appear as objects in the museum, whether we view them as art objects or ethnographic specimens. I ask students to consider how we should frame these masks to grasp the power of their gaze and our own unconscious perspectives. What other objects should we place inside the frame to illuminate their meaning? Should we display them with examples of medical equipment, a stethoscope for example? Or would it make sense to place them within a display of theatre props? Or perhaps we should look for them amidst the great array of statues and artifacts that adorned the shelves and desk of Sigmund Freud’s study. What or whom do they represent, and how should we represent them?

A look at how the mask’s American collector, Henry LeGrand Cannon, framed this mask before it was donated to the museum provides one revealing chapter in what we can think of as the mask’s biography. Henry was the son of Col. LeGrand B. Cannon, a prominent New York transportation magnate who owned Lake Champlain Transportation and maintained a grand summer residence in Burlington (“Overlake”). The son traveled widely in South and Southeast Asia as a young man, collecting an extensive array of artifacts, which he kept in a special room in the family’s Burlington mansion devoted to his “East India curios and bric-a-brac.” Henry was also a gifted sculptor who exhibited his work in New York and at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago. This photo from the Fleming Museum shows him sitting at leisure in his “India Room”:Canon_in_roomFollowing Cannon’s untimely death in 1895, his collection of 600 objects was donated to the Fleming, which at that time was primarily an ethnographic collection overseen by UVM Professor George Henry Perkins, a natural historian with broad interests in human culture; Perkins instituted one of the first university courses in anthropology taught in the U.S. In 1898 a special room modeled after Cannon’s India Room (now the west wing of Torrey Hall), was constructed to house the collection. The Cannon Room continued to be very popular with museum visitors, and it was reinstalled many times, remaining largely intact even as it made the move into the new Fleming Museum, built in 1931; it remained a part of the museum until the mid-1980s when the museum underwent a major renovation. Here is a view of the Cannon Room after it was installed in the new museum, with the Maha Kola Sanniya mask prominently displayed above Cannon’s portrait:cannon room 30sDepending upon how we frame the mask, whether as art object or ethnographic specimen, our focus shifts to different aspects of its material presence and its sensory surround. What matters is that we attend closely to its current material form, while remaining attuned to the diversity of cultural practices that have shaped its past uses, and brought it to rest today in the climate-controlled security of the museum’s storage facility. My thanks to the Fleming for preserving this precious object for over a century, giving us the opportunity to view it within multiple frames and from various points of view.